Tisha b'Av in Jerusalem

Image_130 “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion.”  …Psalm 137:1

The view at left is a picture of the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount; I took the picture Erev Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.  On the 9th of Av we remember many disasters to have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia – the destruction of the Temple, not just once but twice; the crushing of the revolt at Beitar, which ended hopes of Jewish sovereignty for almost 2000 years; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the beginning of World War I, which some argue set in motion events leading to Hitler and the Holocaust.  On Tisha b’Av we sit low on the ground and read the book of Lamentations by candle light, and for a little over 24 hours we observe a Yom Kippur-like fast, no food or drink, not even water.  Be well hydrated before trying this in the summer in a desert climate!

Being Jerusalem, there was no shortage of options for Tisha b’Av services. 

One could go to the Kotel (the Western Wall), where in addition to the usual Orthodox service there was a Conservative service at Robinson’s Arch; there were several services offered at the Tayelet, one of the premier view points of the Old City and the Temple Mount. I decided to join the group from my synagogue, Moreshet Avraham, at the Tayelet. To me, the Tayelet provided just the right vantage point. I’m often a little uncomfortable going to the Kotel to pray – it almost feels a little bit like idol worship, going to stand before a pile of rocks to pray. The Tayelet, less than two miles away, provides an excellent view, yet you’re not right on top of the rocks. And in a sense, the view from the Tayelet does a better job of capturing the spirit of the time. We can see the Temple Mount – and what we see when we look in that direction is not our temple, but an Muslim holy place. Some people might look at that view and feel anger. I look at that view and feel a little humility, and feel reminded that we have not succeeded in creating a world of peace where our Muslim cousins extend their hand and offer to let us build a temple next to their mosque. Heck, at this point they don’t even let us come up to Temple Mount and pray and mourn up there – and the Israeli government supports that decision, and does not allow Jewish prayer, even informally, on the Temple Mount, lest it lead to violence. So watching from the Tayelet for me perfectly captures the spirit of the moment.

But Tisha b’Av is a holiday that raises an ambivalent set of feelings. The Talmud (BT Taanit 30b) tells us “R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says: Any one who eats or drinks on the Ninth of Ab is as if he ate and drank on the Day of Atonement. R. Akiba says: Any one who does work on the Ninth of Ab will never see in his work any sign of blessing. And the Sages say: Any one who does work on the Ninth of Ab and does not mourn for Jerusalem will not share in her joy, as it is said, Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her.” But I have to admit, it feel s just a little strange for a resident of Jerusalem – a dynamic, exciting, fascinating place, filled with over half a million Jews – to mourn for Jerusalem. I’m so excited and happy to be living here – mourning seems somehow out of place, and perhaps even a little ungrateful.

So, I remind myself, as I have said in sermons before, that the reason I’m fasting and mourning is to remember that our work is not done, the world is not at peace, and we may be in Jerusalem, but we don’t have the symbol of an era of peace, the Temple. And I think it is important to remember the pain of the past, to remember the victims in the past, to remember the sacrifices others made, some willingly, some unwillingly, that led to my being able to live in Jerusalem in reasonable security. And that remembered pain should inspire us to love one another and to turn to God.

I also find in the Tisha b’Av story a stark reminder against religious fanaticism. We read the story in the Talmud about Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, about the “sinat chinam,” about the gratuitous hatred that led to the destruction of the second Temple. In the story we are told how this unnamed man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar-Kamtza. He was having a big party with all the important people in town, and sent his servant to invite Kamtza. Said servant was a little confused and accidentally invited Bar-Kamtza. Bar-Kamtza shows up and gets turned away. He’s very embarrassed – after all EVERYONE is there – and he even offers to pay the expenses of the party if the host will just let him avoid embarrassment by staying. Host refuses; Bar-Kamtza notices the rabbis are sitting there watching, and they seem therefore to condone the host’s lack of hospitality. So he decides to tell the Romans the rabbis are plotting against him – as proof, he suggests the Roman governor present an animal for the Jews to sacrifice. Clever Bar Kamtza offers to deliver the animal, and on the way gives it a minor injury which no one except the punctilious rabbis will notice – an injury which disqualifies the sheep from being offered in the Temple. The rabbis had a quandary: offer a blemished animal on the altar (which is a religious no-no), or risk the wrath of the Romans? The rabbis were inclined to offer the blemished animal, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkubas said no, people will say we are offering blemished animals. So they rejected the offering, and the Temple and Jerualem were destroyed. Right in the Talmud it says  “R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.” So it wasn’t JUST the gratuitous hatred between the host and Bar-Kamtza – the rabbis share in the responsibility for their being excessively machmir (stringent) and weighing ritual more important than life. When I look at the way the chief rabbinate in Israel seems to be getting stricter on every halachic question under the sun – from supervision of food to acceptance of converts – I worry for religious life in Israel.

For the morning service on Tisha b’Av I went to Moreshet Avraham, but I have to admit it just feels weird to be reciting these very mournful and depressing kinot (liturgical poems), lamenting the loss of Jerusalem, while sitting in a perfectly nice shul in Jerusalem. Yet the Messiah has not yet come, so Tisha b’Av is not yet turned into a day of feasting instead of fasting. Maybe we need a half way measure?

To those of you fasting, have a meaningful fast,

Rav Baruch



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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